It was one of those middle-of-the-night phone calls. My oldest brother, in a hushed voice, informed me that he was at the emergency room. My mother, who'd been having heart and other ailments not uncommon for someone of her advanced years, had been rushed there unable to catch her breath. But it was worse than that. We might have to make some decisions about her, my brother said somberly.
Driving from my hotel to the hospital, hoping I'd remember the way, I was prepared for the worst. So this is how it will end, I thought. At least most of her family was in town (we'd gathered in Michigan to celebrate my eldest sisters 60th birthday). It was, in the widely accepted notion about end-of-life powers, as if Mom had willed this moment for her farewell.
That moment was nearly two years ago. And in the months and years since, my siblings and I have been on a roller-coaster ride no one need tell baby boomers about. After having to give up her apartment, Mom has been living and you can call it that in a nursing home. Fortunately, the care is first-rate. Still, there's little to prevent a person pushing 94 from the bouts with pneumonia and other episodes that have left her life hanging in the balance. In one of the miracles of modern science and the pure genius of her doctors. Mom's congestive heart failure is treated with an ever-shifting regimen of meds that stay the racing heart; just enough to keep the kidneys from shutting down; just enough to free the lungs of too much fluid, etc., etc. My friend Carol's mother had a medical profile similar to my mom's. Carol is just back from the memorial service for her mother who died days shy of her 98th birthday.
There's a conversation my siblings and I have had that we suspect is taking place in many, many more households around the country. I'm not talking about the one covering logistical issues---finances, advocating for care, power of attorney, advanced directives, etc. Those can be enormously weighty and consume their own stores of energy.
I'm referring to a conversation about anxiety, about anticipation fatigue, about living for entire years with a kind of uncertainty that seems suited to a much shorter course of time.
Go ahead and call that conversation ghoulish, a predictable rite of the generation that heralded the me-first approach to, well, everything.
But this isn't about kitchen-table versions of death panels or prematurely counting the inheritance (a non-issue in my mom's case, anyway). This is about escaping a place of isolation. Does anyone else, a family member might ask tentatively, feel a bit stressed out by the length of this final act? Even knowing Mom's in good hands, could any of you have predicted we'd nonetheless worry about her as much as we do? Did anyone think we'd still be postponing vacations (and feeling a twinge of guilt when we take them) because of Mom? Raise your hand if you share my shame in even having this little talk.
Shame, indeed. How can we even broach this topic when so many people would give anything for another day, another hour, a minute more with a deceased parent. No, it's not that the children of long-lingering parents would trade places with those who've already lost theirs. It's just that there is an exhaustion, a fraying that can come with the repeated drumbeat of impending loss, the great not-knowing, unexpected years of waiting for that next 4 a.m. phone call.
Is there anything I would trade for the unanticipated lengthiness of my mom's presence in our midst? Not on your life. And, anyway, that's one of those bigger-than-I decisions well beyond my pay grade. What I want is what everybody wants for themselves and the parents they love: quality of life, for as long as that quality endures. For her part, my mom has asked for no heroic measures to keep her going when that quality is no longer possible. She's nothing if not a realist. As such, she wouldn't fault her children for wondering what exactly to make of the calendar bringing her yet another spring, another birthday.
Now that's heroic.
About the author: A frequent contributor to ThirdAge.com, Jim Brosseau is working on a book about modern-day civility.